Press Releases: Some Questions And Answers

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Have you ever wondered why some academics feature repeatedly in newspapers or trade magazines or even on the radio or TV?  In many cases it’s because they have reputations and are known to journalists.  So how do you break into this ‘magic circle’?  Start with a ‘press release’ – sometimes called ‘media release’ nowadays.

1.  Why write a press release?

A press release helps to broaden awareness of your work.  Media coverage is good for your profile within your institution and with potential sponsors.  Even if the press release only receives coverage in the local papers, more potential students will hear about your work.

2.  How do I identify a potential story? 

Look around and see what other stories appear in relevant media.  A good story doesn’t have to be a research result.  It may be a project being funded; a prize being won; one of your students visiting an out-of-the way country for their project, or even a local celebrity or MP visiting your department.  

3.  What is the easiest way to write a press release? 

Every university will have a press officer.  Email or, better still, phone or visit them and suggest a story.  If you are lucky they will ask you a few questions then offer to write the story for you. 

4.  The press officer is too busy to write it for me.  Can I write it myself, and is there a standard format? 

Yes you can write it yourself.  Each institution may have its own preferred format – ask your press officer for examples – but typical guidelines are:

  • Summarise the whole story in your first paragraph.  That may be all that gets published, particularly if a magazine is short of space, or runs a ‘news in brief’ feature.
  • Have a short but strong title.  Journalists receive lots of press releases; make yours stand out.  Avoid calling it simply ‘Press Release’.
  • Three to five paragraphs is a good length.  If journalists want more details they will contact you. 
  • Avoid jargon and abbreviations.  The reader is unlikely to be a specialist in your subject.
  • Include a “quote”.  Newspapers like a human angle to a story.  The quote doesn’t need to be from anyone famous – it could be from one of the sponsors saying ‘we welcome the chance to be partners in this important research’ or something similar. 
  • Give your contact details (phone and email) at the end of the main story.  Add those of a colleague who can also answer questions.  A journalist working to a deadline won’t wait for a reply from you if you are unable to take their call.
  • Add one or two background paragraphs as ‘Notes for Editors’ after the contact details.  But don’t go beyond two sides of A4 for the whole document.
  • If you have a relevant photo, add that to the document.  Don’t worry if you don’t have a photo; most press releases are sent out without photos.

5.  How should I distribute the press release?

Your university press officer will do this for you.  They will have an electronic list of press contacts.  But do suggest any trade magazines in your field that they can add to their list for your press release.

6.  What are the chances of the press release being used in the media?

Typically sixty to eighty percent of university press releases will generate media coverage.  Of course, getting into the national press is much less likely than getting into the local freesheets or onto local radio.  Some press releases will disappear without trace; others will be covered extensively across different media.  The media often pick up stories from each other rather than from the original press release.

Remember that press releases will also be used in university publications such as the annual review and the alumni magazine.  These in turn can generate more external coverage, often many months after the original story. 

Most research sponsors have their own in-house magazines or glossy newsletters.  Do ensure that press releases on your research are copied to the research sponsors for these publications.

7.  Is there a danger that my work will be mis-reported?

Serious mis-reporting is unlikely.  Yes, your research will be simplified in the press, and will not include all the details and qualifications that you would include in a research paper.  But journalists do try to be fair – and it isn’t worth complaining unless they have seriously misrepresented the story.  If they have, a polite letter to the editor offering clarification is more effective than an angry response. 

8.  What else can I do with press releases?

Keep a file of press releases and copies of any stories they generate.  Your press officer will have access to a ‘cuttings service’ which scans the media for stories related to your institution.  Let them know that you’d like copies of stories.  These provide material for departmental prospectuses, posters, open days and similar events, as well as being useful background material for new students or staff in the department.

Your press officer may also keep a list of people willing to speak to the media on various topics.  If they do, ask them to add you to the list of possible media contacts.

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